DISCLAIMER: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Ephiny, Eponin, Solari, etc. are owned by Universal Studios and Renaissance Pictures.  The other dozen or so Amazons were created by me - because you can never have too many Amazons.  No infringement is intended and no profit is being made.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
CHALLENGE: Written for Epic Proportions 2009.

By Del Robertson



Away from the heat of the larger bonfires, the air was noticeably cooler. A gust of wind sent a sudden chill through Devillare, effectively pulling her from her musings. Rapidly blinking, she forced down the memories, banishing her ghosts back to the past where they belonged.

Shaking her head, deeply breathing in the cooler air, she worked on clearing the cobwebs from her mind. She had been mindlessly trailing along behind Ephiny and Evanthe, following them across the distance of the field as they weaved their way in and out of the smaller fire circles marking off each campsite. Evanthe's hand was still firmly clutched about Ephiny's forearm and the regent was forced to lean down at an awkward angle as they walked to hear what the elder was telling her. As Devillare picked up the pace, narrowing the gap until she was no more than a step behind them, Devillare picked up the thread of their conversation.

"Come tomorrow, keep your mind open and your temper in check."

"I've already agreed, Evanthe. I won't go back on my word." A deep sigh of resignation sent a ragged shudder coursing through the regent's taller frame. "But, I have to wonder if you wouldn't be offering such a ringing endorsement if you weren't happily bonded."

"That may be the key to everything, my regent." Ephiny's brow furrowed as Evanthe delved into a deeper explanation. "The council will advise you of suitable candidates and guide you towards what we feel is the appropriate selection. But ultimately, you'll need to make the decision that makes you the happiest."

Devillare listened to Evanthe's advice with one ear cocked while she kept a watchful eye over her two charges. Even though the trial by combat had been resolved, her nerves were on edge. And, she'd had an uneasy feeling in her gut they were being watched. So far, she hadn't spotted anyone, but that didn't mean they weren't there.

"Evanthe, are you happy with Myrina?" Ephiny spontaneously asked, spotting the retired scout's mate waiting for her at a camp no more than ten paces distant.

"For more than thirty seasons now."

"But, how did you know she was the one?"

Evanthe stopped, turned, taking both Ephiny's hands in her own and stared unwaveringly into hazel eyes. "When I first saw her, Myrina was showing off, running from limb to limb on the training course in the forest. Our instructor had set up an impromptu race and Myrina had easily outdistanced the pack and was on her way back to claim her prize. Three nights off from patrol duty. She was cocky, thinking she had it all sewn up. Then, she misjudged the distance between two limbs; stepped right off into thin air. She crashed to the ground, nearly landing on my feet. And, then she rolled over and looked up at me with the biggest brown eyes I'd ever seen and she gave me this upside-down lopsided grin," Evanthe gave a wistful sigh at the memory.

"And, I've been falling for her ever since."

Ephiny glanced up, having been so enthralled with Evanthe's tale that she hadn't even noticed Myrina leave the comforting warmth of her recently stoked fire circle. She gave a perfunctory nod of greeting to Devillare and Ephiny. Coming up behind her bondmate, Myrina leaned in, brushing back long, wispy white tendrils of hair, then nuzzling at Evanthe's exposed neck. Moving her lips to an earlobe, she whispered a suggestion in a lowered tone. A smile creased Evanthe's lips as she patted the backs of Myrina's hands where her fingers were interlocked about her mate's waist.

"Remember what I said, dear," Evanthe trailed a reassuring hand over Ephiny's shoulder and down her arm, "Keep an open mind - and an open heart - and things will work out fine."

Ephiny absently nodded her head even as the two elder bondmates wrapped their arms about each other and slowly made their way back to their campsite. As they moved onto the scattered fur pelts, Myrina firmly grasped both Evanthe's hands, helping her down. Settling in, the taller of the two scouts made sure they were both tightly bundled up beneath several thick furs.

Respecting their privacy, Ephiny bid them both good evening before turning and picking her way through the scattered campsites, unmindful of Devillare's watchful gaze. Chewing her bottom lip in contemplation, Ephiny guardedly glanced about at the remaining campsites.

She turned her head slightly, directing her line of sight towards the site marked with Artemis' banner. She'd instinctively known exactly when Eponin had appeared on the field. Even when she'd been ambushed by the elders, she'd felt Pony's presence. She had been covertly keeping that banner in sight all evening, surreptitiously keeping watch over the champion, hoping that she would be able to break away and join her weapons master at her fire ring.

In the baths earlier, Eponin had been more on edge than anytime Ephiny had ever seen her before. Something was bothering her; something more than this thing with Cordele. She had hoped to wrangle a warm pelt away from her Amazon sister and snuggle beneath it and watch the stars overhead as they talked. Ep had been struggling to tell her something earlier, that much was obvious, and she wanted the normally withdrawn warrior to feel comfortable enough again to confide in her.

Memories of their shared bathing experience of earlier flashed through Ephiny's mind. She could still smell the scent of Eponin's hair, see the liquid amber of heated honey staring at her through dark, thick lashes, feel the heated sensation of the taut flesh of an abdomen banded with ridges of defined muscles dancing beneath her touch. And, that resonating timbre when Pony had husked out I'll save you a spot.

Ephiny's eyes slid shut and her knees actually went weak with the remembered sensations. Forcing her eyes open, deeply inhaling the cool evening air, she drew in a ragged breath. Activity out of the corner of her eye caught her attention and she stared for long candledrips at the sight of two lovers taking pleasure in each other. Her insides clenched in emphatic response.

Nervously, she wet her suddenly dry lips. I can't believe I'm doing this. I must be on henbane to even be considering it. She started forward, then hesitated, briskly running a hand through her unruly blonde tresses. She was the one that made the offer, though. Steeling herself, she determinedly strode towards the direction of the champion's campsite.

She was no more than twenty-five paces distant when her legs slowed. The shadows from the accumulating clouds and the banner flying high over the camp bathed much of the champion's site in darkness, offering a shroud of privacy. The flames from the fire ring still burned high, though, presenting a macabre tableau of the site's inhabitants, silhouetting their profiles, making it possible to identify shapes if not actual faces.

There was no mistaking the muscular form of the Amazon laying stretched out on the furs. Ephiny had glanced at the camp frequently enough throughout the evening to easily recognize Eponin's relaxed pose. Eyes narrowed as she saw a smaller, slender form straddling the outstretched body of her weapons master. Even Ephiny's slower stride faltered as she recognized Solari positioned behind the other Amazon, leaning into her, as she too moved above Eponin.

"What is it?" Eponin asked again, unable to tamp down the growl of impatience rising in her tone.

"Shhh, keep still." urged Hilaeira. "It's probably nothing. I just don't have enough light to see by."

Probably nothing. For some reason, those two words didn't do much to reassure Eponin. Probably nothing could be a whole lot of something. Willing her breathing to remain steady, fixing her thoughts on other things - comforting things - like staff practice, Ep used the meditation techniques Xena had practiced with her to will her mind to a tranquil place. As the training took hold, she felt her body relax and her mind begin to calm.

Fingertips sliding along bruised cheekbones, Hilaeira placed her thumbs just below two puffy eyes. Pressing down, she stretched the flesh, leaning in closer. Intently peering at the area surrounding the eye itself, she bit off a curse as a shadow fell across her light.

"Solari!" she snapped, "Hold the candle still and stay out of my light."

Fascinated by the examination, Solari had unknowingly crept closer and closer until she was fairly upon the healer's back, leaning over her shoulder, looking into Eponin's eyes right along with her. Until she apparently leaned in too far and Hilaeira yelled at her. Then, she backed off just a bit, resting back on her heels, watching with a cooler detachment as the healer continued her poking and prodding. Solari was still anxious for her friend, but she maintained a much steadier grip on the candle.

Satisfied with the chief scout's cooperation now, Hilaeira returned her full attention to the Amazon warrior stretched out on the fur beneath her. Peering deeply into her patient's eyes, she stared intently, manipulating her thumbs this way and that, trying to see about the entire interior. She'd been concerned that she might find blood pooling in the eyes.

She breathed a sigh of relief that this apparently wasn't the case. This time. Experimentally, she ran her thumbs over the bridge of Ep's nose, smoothing down the edges of the plaster bandage. She felt the weapons master tense beneath her touch, but offered no other adverse reaction.

Another shadow fell across them. Hilaeira glanced over her shoulder, meeting Solari's surprised gaze straight on. Realizing it wasn't the chief scout blocking her light this time, she slowly craned her neck up. As did Eponin and Solari. Three sets of eyes traveled up long legs, briefly registering the blue sashes tied about taut waists indicating the caste of the royal guards. Mutely, all three stared up at a very intimidating Captain of the Guard and two of her armed escorts.

"Solari," Pelagia barked, "A moment?"

Solari cast a questioning look at Hilaeira. "It's okay," she affirmed, reaching out, taking the candle and flint from the chief scout. Solari made it to her feet, then staring dubiously at the mug still clutched in her grasp, she balanced it on the log that Eponin was braced against. Giving a curt nod, Solari followed the captain of the guard away from the campsite.

Ephiny's heart had crawled up her throat, lodging itself firmly in her mouth, rendering her speechless. Her legs had stopped working altogether, refusing to move either forward or back; leaving her stranded somewhere firmly in the middle of the shadows between the warmth of the last campsite she'd passed and the site belonging to the champion. Her mind screamed at her to move in one direction or the other, but her body refused to respond to the commands. That wasn't the only thing her mind was screaming.

Eponin. And, Solari. A shudder coursed through her entire body as her mind added the word together. There was something about the thought of her two best warriors drawing pleasure from each other that was boggling to the mind. It wasn't that the notion was entirely displeasing. As a matter of fact, Ephiny felt and acknowledged the noticeable tightening in her lower region in response to the visual stimulation. The idea of two such fine Amazonian specimens together created an intriguingly interesting, although unexpected, image.

What dampened the erotic aura of the scene, however, was the disturbing presence of the third Amazon. Ephiny was still far enough away and the darkness was effective enough to shroud the Amazon's identity from the regent's scrutiny. A growing knot in the pit of her stomach demanded Ephiny find out who Eponin and Solari were sharing their pleasure with. She had the sudden urge to storm the campsite and pull that skinny Amazon's butt off the top of her champion. But, her traitorous body still refused her mind's rampant, conflicting signals, leaving her impotently immobile in her frustration.

She was more than a little perturbed that Eponin and Solari were sharing a tryst with someone. Oh, she knew of most of Solari's past sexual escapades and it wasn't that difficult to imagine her being comfortable enough to share another's body with a third person. And, given the nature of the night's celebration, it was, of course, the champion's prerogative to bed whoever she wanted. I just never thought that Pony would be the sort - I mean, her and Soli are friends - Then again, Pony's my friend, too - But, I'm not over there straddling her, grinding into her, feeling her beneath my -

A perverse sense of glee shot through Ephiny as Pelagia and two of her guards appeared at the edge of the champion's campsite. In unison, three heads turned, looking up at the unexpected trio. Ephiny had thought that the interruption would effectively diffuse the situation. She was mildly disappointed when only Solari climbed to her feet and joined Pelagia, leaving Eponin and the other Amazon alone on the furs.

Whereas Ephiny had always had some knowledge of Solari's entanglements, she had until this point been blissfully unaware of Eponin's romantic interests. Oh, she'd overheard the rumors; this was still a village full of women, after all. But, most of the gossip surrounding the weapons master was about who wanted to be sharing Eponin's furs. For a time, the rumors had even suggested that Queen Melosa herself had been petitioning the weapons master for private sparring sessions.

Ephiny had been naturally curious about that and had spent half a moon following both Queen and Weapons Master about the village, trying to spot any tell-tale hints of a romantic involvement. She'd discovered nothing. Ephiny wasn't naive, not by any stretch of the imagination, and she knew Eponin must have someone that she turned to when she needed release. But, Eponin had never acted even remotely interested in anyone - I don't think I've ever even seen Pony kiss anyone in public, let alone - do that.

The Amazon atop Eponin stretched out, reaching above the warrior's head, her torso coming into intimate contact with the warrior's as she leaned forward. A large set of hands closed about a slender waist in an offer of support. The position was held for a long, indrawn breath before she sat upright again. Ephiny's eyes narrowed as the Amazon held what looked to be a mug of ale in her hands. The warrior leaned forward, the other woman continued to hold the mug, tilting it towards Eponin . . . and Ephiny chewed her bottom lip in irritation.

She was so completely focused on the champion's campsite that she very nearly jumped right out of her leathers when a large hand firmly clamped down upon her shoulder.

Eponin's eyes trailed Solari and Pelagia as they left the warmth and light of the campsite's fire ring. With a purpose to their stride, they headed across the ceremonial field. Watchful eyes noted the two guards following closely, a wary gait to their walk as they trailed the captain of the guard and the chief scout. Matching sword belts hung from the guards' waists, riding low on their hips. Dual palms rested upon sword pommels, fingers drawing comfort in caressing well-worn, familiar grips.

Something wasn't right. Eponin could feel it in her gut. She was used to seeing Pelagia always and forever hovering just around the perimeter of ceremonies and celebrations. As captain of the guard, she took her duties very seriously, often foregoing her own enjoyment to attend to security details.

Eponin supposed that was why it was a good thing Pel had bonded with an older Amazon like Megara; it would be too difficult for someone in her position to try to raise a family with someone much younger. Megara was already settled in her ways and wasn't concerned about whether or not her mate danced every dance with her at the festivals. Truth be told, with Megara's duties as healer, she was usually at the hospice during most celebrations, anyway.

It was an arrangement that worked well for both Amazons. Megara was free to perform her duties or go back their hut as she pleased. And, Pelagia didn't have to worry about whether her woman was seeking the comfort of another Amazon's arms because she was never able to participate at functions. Therefore, it came as no surprise that Pelagia was on-duty tonight and her bondmate wasn't in attendance.

Even so, something was decidedly wrong. Eponin had caught the worried glimmer in her friend's eyes, recognized her visit to the campsite as being something more than just social. Pelagia's accompaniment of extra muscle when she'd collected Solari confirmed it. She wondered at the reason for the captain taking the chief scout off to speak in private and hoped there wasn't a threat looming on their borders.

But, if that was the case, then as weapons master, I should have been informed -

As Solari and the guards passed out of her line of sight, Eponin twisted about in an effort to see where they were going. One hand was fumbling about the furs, fingers blindly reaching for her set of crutches. A firm hand soundly pushed her raised shoulder back down, fingers caught and held her jaw in a tight grip, turning her head so she was forced to look up at the apprentice healer.

"What do you think you're doing?"

Now that she was done with her preliminary examination, Hilaeira caught the flame between her thumb and forefinger, extinguishing the light. Dropping the candle and flint on the fur she was kneeling on, she intently studied Eponin's battered face. There was still more than enough light to read the shocked expression on the warrior's face.

A twin set of dark brows rose at the unexpected question. Still trying to twist her body about, even in her prone position upon the pelts, Eponin's eyes darted in the direction her friends had gone. "I'm going - "

" - To lay right here and let me finish treating you." Hilaeira settled herself squarely upon Eponin in an attempt to use her weight to keep the stocky Amazon in place. In reality, she knew if the weapons master hadn't been injured and so physically drained, there was no way she would be able to keep her down if she truly wanted up. Even injured, she wasn't positive that Eponin couldn't easily remove her if she was so inclined.

There was a conviction in Hilaeira's voice that Eponin hadn't thought the girl possessed. In fact, it so resembled Megara's own tone that the seasoned warrior was temporarily stunned into submission.

"Now, how are you feeling?" The young apprentice casually asked as she ran her hand lightly across Eponin's ribcage, checking to see if the plaster bandage was still securely wrapped in place. When no response was forthcoming, she looked up to see light colored eyes intently scrutinizing her. "I asked how you're feeling," she verbally prodded, even as her fingers jabbed exactly where she knew an injured rib was.

"Fine." Eponin managed to keep a neutral tone in her voice, a rigid mask schooled across her features.

"Warriors." Hilaeira's voice held more than a hint of exasperation. Laying her palm flat over the top of the weapon's master ribcage, she told her, "Eponin, I need you to honest about how you're feeling. I can't treat you properly if you don't tell me what hurts."

Nostrils flared. And, despite the coolness of the evening, a bead of perspiration appeared on Eponin's upper lip. Honey-colored eyes narrowed to tiny slits. Throat muscles worked as she audibly swallowed. In a voice so low the apprentice healer nearly missed it, Eponin confessed, "That hurts."

"Thank you."

Hilaeira had secretly wondered if she'd be able to elicit a response from the weapons master. She had often witnessed how Megara would bark and threaten and intimidate her patients into submission. Sometimes, that was the only thing that got through to a hard-headed warrior. Hilaeira knew she didn't possess Megara's larger size or attitude. So, she'd adopted the notion that if she couldn't be intimidating enough, she'd have to find other methods of getting her patients to cooperate with her.

Including trickery, if need be. Hilaeira shifted, releasing some of the extra pressure she'd been applying to Eponin's ribcage by leaning on her palm. As the pain subsided, the weapons master's erratic breathing slowly returned to normal. Reaching into her healer's pouch, the young Amazon retrieved a vial of salve. Dabbing her fingers into the mixture, she liberally coated the patches of raw skin between Eponin's bandage and belt.

"Does that hurt?" she solicitously inquired, feeling Eponin tense beneath her.

"N- no." Through gritted teeth, the warrior made the admission, "Stings a little."

"Good." Fingers continued to move between the vial and Eponin, repeatedly slathering the salve on. "What else?"

"Well . . . " with a shrug and a frown, Ep confided, "It's a little cold."

Hilaeira bit down a laugh. Sometimes, warriors were so cute in their naivety. "I meant, what are your other ailments?"

"Oh." Eponin was embarrassed at the healer's apparent amusement. Why does this have to be so hard? I got my ass beaten today; shouldn't she be able to figure out that everything hurts? Finding the resolve to give voice to that thought, she confided, "It aches."

Hilaeira sat back on her heels, intently studying the woman beneath her. A big part of being a successful healer was having the ability to read into what a patient wasn't saying. Especially if that patient was a stubborn warrior that wasn't the best at articulating her needs. Comprehension dawning, she leaned forward, stretching her body across Eponin's torso in an effort to reach the log the weapons master's back was braced against. Moving back, settling into position, she offered up the mug she'd retrieved.

Ep eyed the mug warily, her gaze slowly moving back and forth between contents and healer.

"It contains herbs that will keep the pain to a minimum," The healer supplied, "and help prevent the stiffness from settling into your joints so you won't be nearly so sore come morning." She moved the mug beneath Eponin's nose.

The warrior warily sniffed. She'd already had her fill of that foul-smelling concoction they called broth back at the hospice. "Smells bad." As Hilaeira pressed the rim to her lips, she cautiously sipped. "Tastes worse."

"That's because it works."

"That stuff you gave Ephiny didn't taste so bad."

Hilaeira arched a bemused brow. "That's a special brew designed specifically for the regent's headaches."

"Didn't help mine any."

The healer pressed the mug to Eponin's lips again in an attempt at keeping the warrior from noticing her amusement. "You have a headache?" She wasn't surprised; they'd had to stitch closed that nasty looking gash above the champion's ear.

"Yeah." As Eponin drank more and more of the broth, she found the healer's continuous questions easier to answer. "Ringing in my ears, too."

"That's because you got your bell rung." This time, Hilaeira didn't try to hide the mirth in her voice. "You've probably sustained a concussion. I'm sure the ringing will pass in time." She couldn't help teasing, "Don't worry, there's nothing to prevent you from enjoying yourself tonight. Just don't get too . . . " she let a deliberate pause dangle in the air before she added " . . . enthusiastic in your celebrations."

Solari warily followed Pelagia and the two guards away from her campsite. She'd known Pel since the time they were young Amazons and trusted her implicitly. But, something was wrong. She could feel it along with the hairs standing straight up on her arms and at the back of her neck. Nervously, she cast a backwards glance towards Eponin.

"What's going on?" she asked, when they had picked their way across the field littered with small fire rings and now stood in a secluded section in the shadow of the surrounding forest.

"Who says anything's going on?" Pelagia countered, "Maybe I just wanted to say hello to an old friend."

"And, maybe I'm the Warrior Princess," parried Solari, one hand on her hip, her brow arched as she proclaimed, "It doesn't take Xena to realize you're expecting trouble." She cast meaningful glances at the guards' itching fingers dancing over the grips of their swords.

A crooked smile came to Pelagia's lips in acknowledgement. "Never could fool you, Soli." She glanced up, caught the gazes of the other two guards, "Find the regent. Stick close," she commanded. Then, as an afterthought, added, "And, be discreet."

Lexine and her companion gave brisk nods and sharp salutes. As they marched past Solari, Lexine gave a tumultuous smile to the chief scout. She'd heard about what sort of things happened at the type of celebration they were having tonight. And, she'd remembered waking up in Queen Gabrielle's bed, firmly tucked into the brunette's side. She'd been thinking about that experience a lot lately. She'd even fantasized that if she could somehow approach Solari tonight . . . well, then the scout just might think of her as something more than just a naive, wet behind the ears featherhead that she'd gotten stuck with while guarding the Queen. Maybe if she's not occupied when I get off duty - Lexine quickly shook off that unlikely thought. Someone as beautiful as Solari always has someone vying to share her bedroll.

Pelagia kept her silence until the two guards moved out of range. She trusted them both, but she couldn't risk either of them overhearing and inadvertently letting something slip to someone else in their squad. She watched them go, both searching for some sign of their regent in the abundance of bodies that populated the field. Lexine flicked a glance back over her shoulder at them and stepped awkwardly, tripping over a rock, nearly stumbling into a small fire ring. The flaxen haired youth reached out, grabbing at her swordmate's leathers in an effort to keep from falling face first into the flames. The other guard had to employ some fancy footwork of her own to keep them both from falling into the fire and over the top of two long-legged Amazons that were entwined on a pelt. By the time they had stammered their apologies and extricated themselves from the situation, there were two agitated, naked Amazons on the bare ground and a frazzled animal fur being dragged along by a guard's snared boot.

Artemis preserve me; That girl gets clumsier and clumsier every day! Pelagia caught the bemused expression on Solari's face as she caught the less-than-graceful antics of the guard. She could practically hear the words echoing in the chief scout's skull. Yep. Royal guard, all right. Supposedly the best of the best.

"Soooooo," Solari inquired solicitously while bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet, "You gonna teach them how to walk in between lessons on how to guard the regent?"

"Shut up, Soli." Pelagia's hand reflexively went to her sword hilt. "They may be uncoordinated, but at least they're loyal."

"Easy there, Pel." Solari was perturbed by her friend's grip on her weapon, but not concerned enough to move her hands off her hips in reaction. "You got problems?"

"Yeah." The captain of the guard nodded off-handedly even as she gave a cursory glance around the field. "Cordele."

"Is securely locked in her cell awaiting transport to the outpost tomorrow." Solari's confident smile faltered as Pelagia didn't immediately answer. "Pel? Cordele is in her cell, right?" Still, no answer as Pelagia continued to stare past Solari. A worried edge crept into the scout's voice as she placed both hands on the captain's shoulders, none-too-gently shaking her. "Pel, look at me. Cordele is still locked up, right?"

"Huh?" Pelagia shook her head, refocusing her attention on her friend. She had been engrossed in watching her guards progress across the field and had only been half-listening. "Oh, yeah. Cordele's still locked up."

"Then, what's with the show of force?" She pointedly glanced at Pelagia, noticing no fewer than five hidden and not-so-hidden blades on the captain's person. "I mean, you're armed to the teeth."

"Just being paranoid. I hope." Pelagia rubbed the back of her neck, exhaled loudly. "Solari, Cordele had followers before she stepped into that ring against Eponin. And, I'm not just talking about Kynthia and Keleos."

"Sure," shrugged Solari. "Most of the hunter caste supported her. We know that."

"She may have had more than even the hunter caste."

"What does that matter now? Ep defeated her. The trial by combat is over and by law, every Amazon has to accept the verdict."

"But, what if they don't?" pressed Pelagia. "You saw it after Melosa was defeated. There were those that didn't accept the outcome then, either." She pointedly stared directly into darkening eyes. "You and I among them. Ep and Eph, too."

"That was different. Velasca cheated. There's no way she could have defeated Melosa in fair combat." Solari ran a hand through her thick hair in clear agitation. She decided she didn't like the direction this conversation was heading. Gods, I need a drink! Her gaze traveled back to the campsite, traveling over her forgotten wineskin laying on the bear pelt, then darting over the figures of Eponin and Hilaeira. The healer's apprentice was reaching across Eponin, retrieving the mug she had placed on the log earlier. "No way Pony cheated."

Pelagia felt both eyebrows raise in surprise. That was the first time she'd heard Solari use that nickname. First time she'd heard anyone other than Ephiny say it out loud. She used a discreet cough to mask the chuckle that tried to work its way out when she thought about what Pony would do to Solari if she'd heard.

"I don't think she cheated any more than you do, Solari. But - " She caught the flash of anger in Solari's dark eyes as she spun about to face her. " - just like we thought there was no way Velasca could defeat Melosa . . . there may be those that feel Ep couldn't have defeated Cordele." She saw the defiant lift of a chin, the flare of nostrils, the clenched fist and waited for the surge of rage to leave Solari's frame. "Ep was hurting before she ever took that field, Soli. You know it. I know it. Cordele knew it. Hades, half the Nation knew it!"

"Eponin also knew what was on the line if she lost!" Solari had the urge to shout the words at the captain of the guard. Only a well-developed sense of control allowed her to suppress her outburst to a hissed whisper. "She's a warrior. She dug deep and found the will to do what she had to do!"

"That may have included drugging Cordele the way Velasca drugged Melosa." Pelagia struggled to contain her own voice, nervously glanced around to make sure they weren't drawing undue attention.

"Or, maybe like the trial by combat suggests, truth was on Eponin's side and Artemis blessed her with the strength to win!" Solari shook her head at Pel's audacity, began backing away from someone she had until now called friend.

Ephiny stiffened at the touch of the hand firmly clamping down upon her shoulder. Turning her head, uncertain hazel eyes looked up into concerned grey.

"My regent?" Devillare's low voice sent heated puffs of air out of her mouth with each word, disturbing the stillness of the chilly night.

Ephiny glanced down. In her other hand, Devillare firmly clasped two mugs of ale. Somewhere in the back of the regent's mind, she had registered the former captain's presence as she'd left Evanthe's and Myrina's campsite. What she couldn't pinpoint, however, was the exact moment that Devillare had slipped away, secured the drinks and then rejoined her. Guess I was too focused on other things. That thought in itself was annoying. Ephiny hated to be so preoccupied that she failed to notice what was going on around her.

Attempting to shove the incident to the back of her mind, she gratefully accepted the proffered mug. Raising it to her lips, she let out a contented sigh as the heady brew assaulted her palate.

The Amazon standing beside the regent was concerned. She'd watched from a distance before returning to Ephiny's side. The acting queen had been standing stock-still, posture rigid, fists balled at her sides. Her jaw was clenched so tightly that Devillare could trace the rigid set stretching from ear to chin.

Despite no deliberate attempt on her part at employing methods of stealth, she'd noted that Ephiny had remained oblivious to her approach. Worse, she'd seen the quickly indrawn breath when she'd touched the regent's shoulder, felt the reflexive jump beneath her hand. Seasons of training echoed in Devillare's head. If I'd been an assassin, she'd be -

The warrior shook off the unsettling image of the young regent laying on the ground, bleeding to death, her life cut short by a knife slit across her throat.

"My regent," Devillare's voice was uncharacteristically thick with emotion as she offered, "May I escort you to your camp?"

Ephiny gave an abject nod, felt the warrior's strong hand move from her shoulder. Devillare gallantly offered up her bent arm and Ephiny's fingers smoothly found their way about a powerfully muscled appendage. Deliberately forcing herself to not look again, she allowed Devillare to lead her on a circuitous route about the champion's campsite.

"Look," Pelagia reached out, placing a restraining hand on Solari's elbow. Solari tried to shake it off in reaction, but the captain tightened her grip. "I'm not saying Ep did anything wrong. No one is."

"Then, what are you saying, Captain?"

"I'm saying," Pelagia felt the edge creep into her own voice as she heard Solari address her by her title, "there may be some of Cordele's followers who aren't quite so believing in the powers of the Goddess - or in Ep's willpower." She softened her tone, trying to convince Solari that she meant no harm. "I'm worried they may not let things go quite so easily."

"You think they might try something?" Solari asked suspiciously. "What about their oath of honor to obey the outcome?"

"Where was Cordele's honor when she blindsided Ep the first time around?" Satisfied that Solari was going to listen and not bolt, she released her friend's arm. "It's a long time between tonight and when that supply wagon pulls out of here tomorrow. A lot could happen between now and then."

"You think they'd go after Ephiny?" Solari questioned, remembering the two guards that had gone off in search of their ruler.

"Maybe," Pelagia shrugged, her eyes reflexively scanning the crowd again. She breathed a sigh of relief when she noticed the previously dimming flames at the regent's campsite being fanned into an impressive fire. Sharp eyes noticed the figures of two guards who had been headed in the direction of the dance circles inconspicuously change their route so they were now headed towards the regent's campsite. "Cordele was very vocal about blaming Ephiny for whatever happened at that cache. My dinars are on any retaliation being on Ep's head. But, I can't rule out the possibility that the regent may be in danger."

Solari folded her arms over her chest. Pursing her lips, she looked down at her boots, lost in momentary thought. Looking up, she met Pelagia's concerned stare. "You sure two guards are gonna be enough?"

"That's what I wanted to talk to you about." Pelagia rubbed the back of her neck in that way she had of doing whenever she was stressed. Exhaling deeply, she confessed, "Ephiny was already kidnapped out of the village once. I won't rest easy unless I'm personally guarding the regent this time."

"And Eponin?"

The captain sighed, glancing towards the campsite where the weapons master had settled down for the night. "I can't put guards on her, Soli. It would be too obvious that I thought something was up. That I wasn't putting faith in the sisters of the Nation or in my position as the Captain of the Guard."

"So, even though you know she may be in danger, you can't do anything to protect her?"

"That about sums it up." She caught the troubled look in Solari's eyes. "I'm worried about her too, my friend." She jerked her head in the direction of the champion's campsite. "Although, it seems the only immediate danger she's in right now is being fawned over to death."

Solari's gaze followed Pelagia's. Hilaeira was still with Eponin, working a hand through Ep's dark mane as she held a mug to the weapons master's lips as she drank. "Ah, she's just treating her," Solari shrugged.

"Interesting. In all the seasons Megara's been a healer," observed Pelagia, "I don't recall my bondmate ever straddling a patient during an examination."

Solari watched the antics of the younger Amazon, now clearly seeing the obvious efforts at flirtation. Which, if she knew her friend, Eponin just wasn't realizing. "She's Artemis' champion," Solari grinned, "Let her enjoy the attention. Gods knows she deserves it."

Pelagia and Solari continued to watch the display unfold. The healer's assistant seemed to be encouraging Eponin to take her medicine, employing more than a hint of seduction to get the task accomplished. And, Eponin didn't seem to be adverse to the attention being lavished upon her. Suddenly, another Amazon stepped onto the fur pelt. Eponin and Hilaeira looked up in surprise.

Both Solari and Pelagia tensed in anticipation, their hands going to their weapons. Casually, they began weaving their way back through the littered array of fire rings and animal furs. As they drew nearer and nearer Eponin's site, Pelagia's sharp gaze repeatedly scanned the area. She didn't expect one lone Amazon to make an attack on the weapons master. And, not so early in the evening when there were still so many alert sisters about. But, you never knew; Vengeance was a fickle mistress, operating without hindrance of rhyme or reason.

She stood towering over the Amazons on the pelt, both hands on her hips as she glared down at them. The captain and the scout couldn't hear what was being said, but there was clearly a heated confrontation. As they drew nearer and the light from the fire illuminated the brunette's features, Pelagia breathed a sigh of relief as she recognized the young hunter. Hilaeira looked at Eponin, then back at the other Amazon before scrambling to her feet. Reaching out, clutching the brunette's hand firmly in her grasp, she led her away from Eponin's campsite.

"Hmm." Pelagia rubbed her chin. "Interesting. Didn't know she was with Tyrienne."

"Doesn't matter," Solari shrugged. "Eponin's the champion. Tonight's her night. She's earned the right to choose any Amazon she wants this night."

"Don't think Tyrienne sees it that way." Pelagia continued to absently watch Megara's youngest daughter being led away by the healer's assistant. Even though her arm was slung over Hilaeira's shoulder, the Amazon kept casting disparaging looks back at Eponin. "Listen, I'm still worried about Ep. Are you going to be with her tonight?"

"Yeah," Solari nodded absently, still staring at her friend reclining against the log at their campsite. She seemed perfectly content to sit and drink from that mug of broth Hilaeira had forced upon her. "Don't worry, I'll stick with her like funk on a warlord."

"Thanks, Soli."

Pelagia looked up as two Amazons weaved an unsteady path towards them. One of them, she immediately recognized from just her gait. She nudged Solari, directing her attention towards the approaching couple. They both held mugs in their hands and their noses were more than a little red from their alcohol consumption.

"Gryta." Captain Pelagia acknowledged with a tilt of her head. "With an arched brow, she tried to hide her smile as her eyes swept over the dancer hanging off her guard's arm. "Nephele." She forced her gaze away from the dancer's bare breasts, keeping her eyes on Gryta's face instead. "I see you're - um - enjoying the celebration."

"Yes, Captain." The guard was unable to keep the grin off her lips. "Thank you for taking me off the active duty roster tonight."

"Just make sure you get enough rest so you're prepared to escort that wagon out tomorrow," advised Pelagia.

"Not to worry. We're off to bed as soon as we find Nephele's top." Gryta gave a sly wink. "Early morning's going to be fairly chilly. And, we wouldn't want her coming down with a chest cold."

As predicted, the comment served to draw both Pelagia's and Solari's gazes to Nephele's chest. Her breasts were rounded and full, the nipples thick as arrowheads. Gryta made a point of snaking her arm higher about Nephele's waist, her hand cupping the dancer's breast, hefting it in her palm for emphasis. She grinned, enjoying her game of teasing the older Amazons with what she was soon going to be indulging in.

Solari painfully dragged her gaze away from the enticing sight. Forcing her eyes up, she met Nephele's wide smile. Recalling her earlier conversation with Eponin, she said, "Just so happens I have a top back at Ep's camp that looks like it might fit."

Pelagia rolled her eyes as Solari made a gesture for Nephele and Gryta to precede her. Reaching out, she grabbed the chief scout by the elbow, holding her back. Giving her a pointed look, she reminded her, "All night, Soli."

"Yeah, yeah." Solari waved off the captain's words with a toss of her hand. When's the last time I spent an entire night with a woman? she wondered as she began the trek back to her and Ep's fire circle. A smile tugged at the corner of her lips as the answer came to her - when you were in Queen Gabrielle's bed.

They both walked in silence, not feeling the need to fill the air with unnecessary conversation. The regent was lost in her thoughts, barely realizing where she was being led, trusting the captain of the guard to guide them to their destination. As for Devillare, she too was preoccupied. Every sense was on alert, every nerve on end as she remained alert to the possibility of an attack. She didn't want to believe any of her sisters was capable of treachery, especially on this night, but her instincts warned her to stay vigilant.

They had reached the campsite before either of them realized it. The wood in the fire ring burned unattended, grey ash covering the logs. Picking up a nearby branch left there for just that purpose, Devillare knelt beside the fire ring, stoking the fire, bringing the dying embers back to life. Nestling the end of the branch between two of the flat stones ringing the edge of the fire, the captain glanced over her shoulder at the regent.

As they'd stepped onto the fur pelts littering the site, Ephiny had disentangled her arm from Devillare's. Taking off her boots, she settled down onto the furs, drawing her knees up to her chest. Wrapping her arms about her legs, she suppressed a shiver as Devillare worked at rekindling the fire.

At past celebrations, the Queen's table was always the focus of the evening's events. Especially when Xena and Gabrielle were in attendance. The littlest Queen of the Amazons made up in personality anything she lacked in size. Her speeches were amongst the most elegant that Ephiny had ever heard. And, the way she smiled at her sisters as she spoke, the way she laughed and talked and danced with everyone, the stories she often concluded with - she had this way of enthralling the Amazons and keeping them enchanted throughout the evening.

The Queen's table was always well-lit, the laughter boisterous, the food rich, the ale even richer, the company unrivaled. Whether it be Xena and Solari escorting Gabrielle and herself, or even Xena and Eponin joining them for the evening, Ephiny's cheeks were bound to be sore the next morning from all the smiling she'd done.

Of course, this celebration was unlike any the Queen and the Warrior Princess had ever attended with them. It was no secret that their Queen had taken Xena as both her champion and consort. And, anyone within three miles of the main village when those two were in attendance had no doubt that theirs was a very healthy sex life. The first night Xena had taken Gabrielle back to their hut for a little loving, the cries of ecstasy from Gabrielle had brought knowing smiles to every face. What made their jaws drop open in dismay was hearing the hardened warrior begging their little Queen to let her come. And, the yell that had accompanied that climax - Ephiny smiled as she recalled the scouts coming in off patrol reporting that some wild beast was loose in the forest. They'd been mortified to learn that their wild beast was the Queen's consort screaming her release whilst in the throes of passion.

Wonder what Gabby would think about tonight's celebration? Although outgoing and playful in nature, Gabrielle had always seemed a little shy about being overly demonstrative in her affections towards the warrior princess. Oh, kissing and hugging and fawning over the warrior princess was perfectly acceptable. But, it seemed that Gabrielle was reluctant to carry things much farther outside the privacy of their own hut. She was almost - a tiny smile formed on Ephiny's lips as her mind found the word - shy.

That was a quality about her friend and ruler that Ephiny found to be oddly endearing. In a nation full of women where modesty wasn't really an issue, it was refreshing to find someone so completely unaware of her physical beauty. She thought back to that dowdy peasant dress Gabrielle was wearing when they'd first met. There wasn't a hint of flesh showing. But, when she changed into Terreis' outfit -

Part of Ephiny's anger had been over the loss of her friend. The rest was quickly fueled by walking into the hut and seeing the young princess being dressed in those clothes. And, who her attendants were. Magdelus and Eponin were very attentive in aiding the newest Amazon in donning her clothes. It wasn't until later that Ephiny explained to Gabrielle that her two self-appointed attendants were the Nation's best warriors and not her official dressers. The look on Gabrielle's face - the deep coloring of Gabrielle's cheeks -

That had been the real turning point in their friendship, when the annoying outsider had blushed from her head to her toes. Ephiny had been charmed by her almost overwhelming shyness. She'd watched as Gabrielle's mortification at the two warriors' trickery changed to embarrassment as she realized exactly why they would want to help her dress before becoming intriguingly flattered by the notion that someone would go to such great lengths to see her unclothed.

Wonder if she'd still be as modest now? Ephiny could almost picture the little Queen laying on her stomach, trying to cover her exposed backside with a pelt while frantically writing in one of her scrolls as she recorded everything she was observing. While the warrior princess planted kiss after seductive kiss along her neck and spine in an effort to get her attention. Xena was by far the bolder of the couple; she could only imagine some of the methods the warrior might resort to in order to garnish Gabrielle's affections. It would be a very interesting night, indeed.

Tonight was . . . Ephiny forlornly looked about the subdued camp. Tonight was nothing short of depressing. A resigned sigh escaped her lips.

I miss Gabrielle. Hades, I even miss Xena's sourpuss.

Despite the distant throbbing in her head and the persistent buzzing in her ears, Eponin heard the steady approach of boots. Forcing down the last of her broth, she prayed to Artemis that it wasn't Hilaeira returning with yet another mug full. She breathed a little sigh of relief as Solari's familiar worn boots came into view, followed by another set of boots and a pair of bare feet.

Eponin lolled her head back, looking up to see a member of the guard and a dancer accompanying her friend. A very topless dancer with flaming red hair that hung down in wild, untamed locks that were just shy in length of offering a modest covering for her bare breasts. The guard was at the dancer's back, pressed intimately close, head lowered as lips attempted to devour a supple neck. A large hand was firmly attached to one breast, working a stiff nipple between thick fingers. Her other hand disappeared inside the open slit at the side of the dancer's loincloth.

The dancer held a mug of ale and frequently brought the drink to her lips. Taking tiny sips, she peered over the rim at the warrior looking up at her. Although there was a brightness in the dancer's eyes, Eponin wasn't entirely certain if there was passion behind that stare, or merely a false warmth provided by the alcohol. The guard looked up, boldly meeting Eponin's gaze, lust clearly shining in the depths of her eyes. Still maintaining eye contact with the weapons master, the guard bent her head, deeply sucking on the soft flesh beneath her mouth.

"Here it is."

Three sets of eyes slid to where Solari's voice had come from. The chief scout had been kneeling on all fours, rummaging through the assortment of thick pelts and hides littering the champion's campsite. Triumphantly, she came up with the tiny leather top Eponin had hit her in the face with earlier in the evening. Rising to her feet, Solari crossed the furs to stand in front of the dancer.

"Here ya go, Nephele," she offered, holding the top up by just one of the leather ties as her gaze immediately shifted to the dancer's breasts.

"Thank you, Solari." Nephele's voice noticeably hitched as Gryta's fumbling fingers hit a sensitive spot beneath her loincloth.

"Yeah, thanks, Solari." The hand that had been mauling Nephele's breast reached out, the guard's fingers brushing over Solari's as she took the skimpy top from the chief scout. Gryta's gaze flicked to the champion, then back to Solari as if debating before asking, "You want to - " she purposefully left the end of the question dangling, using the tips of two fingers sliding along a bundle of nerves beneath a loincloth to elicit a sharp gasp and an insinuation of what she was suggesting.

Something in Solari's eyes flashed, her nostrils flared slightly before she answered, "No, I think I'll pass." Her gaze flicked to the pout Nephele was sending her way at her refusal. "I've got an early morning and a long patrol tomorrow."

"You sure? Cause you know, I'm being sent out as lead guard on that excursion with the wagon come morning. And, the first snow's already fallen in the mountains by now." Eyes boldly raked over the chief scout's body. Normally, she wouldn't be so brazen. But, she'd indulged in more than her fair share of drink tonight. Enough that her courage and her libido were both being enflamed by the alcohol. "Liable to get pretty cold up there." As her hand worked beneath the dancer's loincloth, Gryta's eyes tried to bore a hole through the same part of Solari's anatomy. "Might be nice to have some memories to help keep me warm while I'm traveling through those cold mountain passes all alone."

"That's what you have a horse for," Solari deadpanned, "Extra body heat."

Eponin couldn't prevent the snort that escaped her lips. Three sets of eyes turned to appraise her. Only one set narrowed in annoyance.

Recalling what the Counsel for the Defense had implied at the trial, Gryta turned back to Solari with a knowing smirk. "Enjoy," she implied with a tilt of her head. "If you aren't - " she pointedly rolled her eyes in Eponin's direction then back before adding " - satisfied with your choice, Nephele's campsite is on the perimeter of the dance circle."

"Yeah, sure." Solari absently nodded as she glanced at where the champion was laying stretched out, a fur pelt pulled up to her waist, fingers interlaced on her stomach. Her bare feet were sticking out from beneath the fur, her legs crossed at the ankles. Ep's eyes were drifting closed and Solari wondered exactly how close her friend was to nodding off. "I'll keep it in mind."

Hazel eyes blinked as a weight was added to her shoulders. Turning her head, looking up, Ephiny found Devillare leaning over her. The elder captain held a thick fur in her grasp and was just placing it about the regent's shoulders, large hands settling the wolf pelt into place.

"You done with that?" Dark brows gestured at the mug loosely dangling from the regent's fingers.

With an absent nod that caused blonde curls to sway, Ephiny let Devillare take the nearly empty mug from her grasp. Peering inside, swirling the minimal contents briskly, Devillare downed the remaining ale in one, quick swallow. With a satisfied lip smack, she tossed the empty container beside her own. Turning back, she noticed the regent's eyelids beginning to droop.

"Ready to call it a night?"

Again, she was answered with a nod. Ephiny was feeling decidedly warmer from both the drink and the fur draped about her shoulders. Her earlier anger had dissipated, leaving her feeling little more than drained and weary. Her mind was still running rampant, swirling with thoughts, but her body was decidedly lethargic. Together, warmth and inactivity assaulted her, threatening to send her to the realm of Morpheus.

She was barely conscious of the fact that the ex-captain of the guard was kneeling at her side, large hands urging her to lay flat on the pelts littering the royal camp. There was added weight on her legs and lower body as first one, then another pelt was draped over her. Reflexively, her body curled in a ball, craving the extra warmth the furs provided. She looked up to see grey eyes shining back at her.

Devillare watched as Ephiny fought a losing battle against sleep. Her eyes kept drifting closed, only to pop back open and then begin sliding shut again. As she tucked the furs about the regent's slender frame, a smile threatened to crease the hardened warrior's lips. She looked down to see hazel eyes watching her before they slid closed again. Stroking thick fingers through an unwieldy mass of curls, she leaned in, placing a kiss to Ephiny's temple.

She allowed herself one last look at the mostly dozing woman before pushing back on her heels and rising to her feet. She was just about to turn to leave when she felt a hand close about her ankle. Looking down, she met Ephiny's gaze.

It was then that Ephiny uttered her first word since Devillare had brought her to the royal campsite.


"Soli?" Eponin's lazy drawl drifted on the night air.

"Hmm?" Solari answered, not looking up, entranced by the pattern of the fire as she stoked the logs with the branch she loosely held in her grasp.

Eponin didn't immediately respond, merely watched as the chief scout sat hunched near the fire, one leg drawn up beneath her, chin resting on her kneecap as she idly twirled a charred twig between thumb and forefinger. She took another long swallow from the wineskin she'd been steadily drinking from. Realizing Ep hadn't continued, sandalwood eyes grudgingly glanced across the campsite.

"What the guard said earlier - " Ep paused as brown eyes intently studied her "when she said if you weren't satisfied - " Thick fingers stroked through the comforting warmth of the pelt laying across her lap " - what Gryta was . . . "

"Gods Pony, you don't have a clue, do you?"

The reminder of exactly what had been offered - and what she'd turned down - rankled Solari enough that she didn't realize she'd said the nickname out loud. This was a festivity to honor Artemis' champion, a time to revel in all things Amazon, an open invitation to celebrate their passionate natures. And, instead of reveling, she had somehow been wrangled into playing nursemaid to a battered, beaten -

Stop it. That's not fair to Eponin. Remorseful eyes studied her friend's face. She had taken a brutal beating at Cordele's hands. All to defend her honor, her word, her caste, her friends. Solari had no doubt as to what her fate - what many of her sisters fate would have been - if not for the weapons master. Whether they knew it or not, a great many Amazons owed Eponin a debt of gratitude that could never be fully repaid. But, Solari felt a need to make some sort of restitution. And, if that means giving up a night of unadulterated pleasure with two more-than-willing partners -

"Gods, Ep, I'm sorry." Solari scrubbed a hand over her weary face, exhaled loudly. "I shouldn't have snapped at you." In a lowered voice, she confessed, "Gryta was suggesting I join her and Nephele in their bedroll after you'd gone to sleep."

"I'm not stupid, Solari." There was more than a hint of anger tinting Eponin's deep timbre. "I know what she wanted."

"Then, why'd you ask?" Solari's head shot up, her impatient glare meeting Eponin's dead-on.

"I'm a big Amazon. You don't have to feel obligated to stay and hold my hand." There was a brief pause before a slightly less gruff tone added, "I was trying to tell you that it was okay for you to go."

Solari's eyes narrowed in suspicion. "Yeah?"


"Huh." Unable to stand up beneath Eponin's scrutiny any longer, Solari turned her gaze back to the fire ring. Using her stick to stoke the fire, she absently stared at the flames licking at the pile of logs as she valiantly tried to wrap her mind around what had just happened. Ep just offered to let me off the hook for the night, is what happened. Reaching for her skin of wine, she wet her suddenly parched lips before remarking, "Nah. Think I'd rather stay here." Eyes darted across the campsite, once again narrowing with suspicion. "Unless you're trying to get rid of me because you've got someone coming by?"

A snort escaped before Eponin could prevent it. "Nope." As if to illustrate her point, she edged away from the log, adjusted the rolled fur at her back, moved down until she was using it as a pillow. "No one coming by."

Because like an idiot, I said the wrong thing. Eponin's mind repeatedly played over the offer she'd made earlier that evening in the bath I'll save you a spot. She resisted the urge to scream into her furs. Make it sound like there's a line of women at your camp and you'll make sure you get around to pleasuring her at some point, why don't you? Gods, I don't blame Eph for not coming over. I wouldn't be surprised if she doesn't put an armed guard outside her hut to keep out lecherous weapons masters!

"No one?" Solari asked, intrigued, although not surprised by the answer. Ep could have just about any woman in the village if she wanted. If she had just a little bit more confidence . . . flirted a little more . . . maybe wore a bolder design of halter - Solari's eyes swept over the weapons master once more. Then again, maybe Ep's fine just the way she is. "You sure?"

"Soli," Eponin rolled her eyes at her friend's persistence. "Even if someone was, I wouldn't have the strength to do anything about it tonight." As Hilaeira promised, the broth had taken away most of her pain, but it had also left her feeling extremely relaxed. She doubted if she could out-wrestle a toddler at this point. As it was, it took all her effort to pull her fur blanket up to her ribs. "Don't let me keep you from your fun, though."

"Already told you, I'm not going anywhere." There was an uncharacteristic no-nonsense tone in Solari's voice. "Tonight's just about me and an old friend."

As a show of determination, Solari tugged both her boots off and tossed them away, narrowly missing throwing them into the fire. Grabbing up a fur, keeping a firm grip on her wineskin, she cautiously picked her way around the perimeter of the fire ring. It hadn't been that long since Gryta and Nephele had wandered off, and Solari's wineskin wasn't completely drained yet, but it certainly wasn't her first skin of the evening, either. Solari had been drinking steadily throughout the night, having lost count of how many skins she'd consumed before joining Eponin.

She could feel the effects starting to kick in, realized her coordination was just a little off. With slow, albeit unsteady steps, she made her way to where Eponin was lazily watching her. Unceremoniously, she plopped down on the furs beside the warrior. She held the skin out, shrugged her shoulders when Ep waved off the offer. Lifting it to her lips, she gave a salute before downing a huge swallow. "To a strong Amazon Nation. And, an even stronger friendship."

"To a strong Nation," Eponin echoed the sentiment, even though she wasn't imbibing.

They stayed like that for several long heartbeats. Eponin stretched out on her furs, a pelt pulled up to keep at bay the steadily dropping temperature. Solari sitting beside her, looking about as if sharp eyes could pierce the darkness enough to see what was happening at the other campsites. Solari took frequent sips of her wineskin and Eponin's fingers insistently picked at her fur pelt.

"Soli?" that familiar lazy drawl broke the silence again.

"Hmm?" Asked Solari, still staring out into the darkness.

"What did Hilaeira say to you? She didn't tell you I was dying, did she?"

Solari's head came about so quickly that she thought she'd nearly snapped her neck. Once her vision stopped spinning and she saw only one weapons master again she asked, "Ep, what in Tartarus?" She tossed her wineskin away, placed her hand to Eponin's forehead, then both cheeks before rapidly darting to the pulse point in a strong neck. "What happened? What'd she say? They told me you got whooped on pretty bad, but that you'd be back to your ornery self again in no time! Did that daughter of a Bacchae poison you? It's like Velasca and Melosa all over again, isn't it?"

"Whoa. Whoa, Soli." Eponin held up both hands in an effort to slow Solari's rampantly roaming hands and still her mouth. "I was just asking."

"So," Solari's befuddled mind worked to keep up with what she thought she was hearing, "Nobody actually said you were dying?"

"That's what I'm asking you."

"No." A shocked look came over Solari's face. "NO! Why would you even think about something so morbid?"

There was a slight shrug of muscular shoulders, light colored eyes glanced up into impatient browns. "I was trying to figure out why you'd rather spend the night with me than - " one arm came up and Eponin made a feeble gesture at any campsite other than her own "I thought maybe it was cause someone told you I was dying."

Stunned, Solari open-mouthed stared at her friend for several long heartbeats. Her jaw worked, but no sound would come out. Flustered, she finally used her mostly empty wineskin to bop Eponin upside the head. "You featherhead! You had me worried!" At the seriousness of the conversation, her wine-induced haze had partially sobered. But, she was still inebriated enough for her tongue to let slip, "Maybe I thought it was more important to be a friend tonight to someone that matters than a lover to someone whose name I might not remember come morning."


Eponin didn't know what else to say. Really, there was nothing that could be said to that one. Thank you would sound lame. Anything that came out of Eponin's mouth at that point would have been inadequate. So, in true warrior fashion, she said nothing else at all.

Leaning up on one elbow, she made a big production out of adjusting the rolled fur she was using as a pillow. She curled onto her side with a soft grunt, burrowing deeper into the warmth of the furs as she settled down again.

A half-breath later, her eyes flew open as she felt a rush of cold air along her backside, then the warmth of a body pressing into hers. A nose snuffled her hair off her shoulder, burying itself into her neck. An arm slipped about her waist, careful to not add any pressure upon her abused flesh.

"Solari!" Eponin instinctively tried to fight her way out of the embrace, but the scout's arm restrained her, pulling her back down.

"Stop squirming," ordered the muffled voice at the warrior's ear.

"Soli, I like you. Really, I do," More words poured out of Eponin's mouth at that point than she thought she'd uttered in her entire lifetime. "But, as a friend. I don't think we should be doing - "

Solari raised up, peering over Eponin's shoulder. Sandalwood eyes full of mirth stared down into two distinctively panicked orbs. "Relax, fearless Weapons Master, I'm not after your body," she grinned, finding her amusement at her friend's expense. "But, just because I decided to be good tonight and not snuggle down with someone else, doesn't mean I plan on freezing my butt off."

That said, Solari scooted forward until she bumped up against Eponin's backside. A low growl rumbled up from the weapons master's throat. "Solari, warriors don't snuggle."

"Uh-huh." Wrapping her arm solidly about the squirming body beneath her, burying her nose in a thick mane that smelled like leather and forest, she husked into an ear, "Is that what you told Xena the last time she was here?" Her lips curled into a smile against Eponin's ear as she teased, "Now shut up and go to sleep before I tell Egeria and the rest of your elite squad that I caught their big, bad weapons master snuggled up with the Warrior Princess."

Eponin nervously wet her lips. "You wouldn't."

"Try me."

Ep's heart trip-hammered in her chest. She didn't think Solari would say anything to any of the other warriors. But, what if she did? And, what if word got back to Xena when she came for her next visit? Worse, what would Queen Gabrielle think? Hera's left tit! What would Ephiny say?

"Paybacks are coming, scout," she warned, even as she forced herself to stop struggling and lay down and close her eyes.

"Uh-huh." Solari smiled against a powerful shoulder blade. "In the meantime, I'm cozy warm, warrior."

As the warrior stared unblinkingly at her, Ephiny offered, "We passed your site as we walked Evanthe to hers." Hesitatingly, knowing she was in uncharted territory, the regent licked her lips before adding, "There was no one there to attend the fire."

It was several heartbeats before the captain answered and in that time, Ephiny thought she saw something flicker in grey eyes. Something she was all too familiar with in her shorter lifespan. Loneliness.

"No," came the almost inaudible reply, "There's no one to maintain my fire ring."

Ephiny nodded in understanding, instinctively recognizing a kindred spirit. Biting her bottom lip, drawing a deep breath, she restated her offer. "Stay." Eyes moved about the campsite. "There's plenty of room. Lots of furs." A half-beat pause and a wry smirk before adding, "Got a nice fire built up."

That earned a broad grin and a resounding laugh from the warrior. She gave the fire an appraising look as if she was noticing it for the very first time. "You do good work," Devillare complimented, "I don't think I've ever seen a more inviting fire ring."

A lazy shrug of the regent's shoulders was her response. "I do what I can."

Another round of laughter shook the warrior's frame. Dragging a hand through her hair, Devillare cast an appraising eye about the campsite. She had no intention of bedding down at her own camp this night. Instead, she had planned on leaving the regent peacefully sleeping in front of her fire while she disappeared into the shadows. She had already decided on settling down on a nice branch in one of the trees lining the perimeter of the ceremonial field.

Sharp eyes had already spotted the two guards taking up their positions in the shadows of the treeline. Devillare hadn't spotted their captain yet, but she was certain Pelagia would be joining them soon enough. She knew Pelagia was committed to her duty, to the point past her own comfort and needs. As leader of the guard, she had to be. After all, the royal guard was the best of the best, entrusted with protecting the Nation's rulers.

But sometimes, even the best isn't good enough. Grey eyes swept over the treeline once more. Still, she couldn't detect Pelagia's presence. But, she knew precisely the exact locations the other guards were taking up their positions at. If I know they're out there, someone else might be alert enough to spot them, too. Seasoned eyes scanned the area again, looking for the best spot to move her surveillance to.

Turning, she noticed Ephiny watching her, awaiting her decision. The regent had made the offer only once, merely asked her to stay. Still, something in that one word crumbled Devillare's resolve to leave. She recognized the need in that one, simple word, heard the unspoken plea in that voice. Coupled with the hint of vulnerability Devillare thought she detected in that gaze, she felt a solid tug at her heartstrings.

Huh. Guess it wouldn't hurt to bed down across the fire. She was already arranging the pelts as her mind rationalized her actions. Sometimes it's better to deter trouble than to try to catch it red-handed. With her mind trying to convince herself that she was only performing her duty by protecting the regent, the warrior pulled a fur covering over her legs and waist. Undercover of the thick pelt, dexterous fingers closed about the knife hilt inside her boot. Masking her movement as an effort to get comfortable, the knife was subtly shifted so that it rested beneath the rolled pelt her head was laying on.

She vaguely heard the regent bid her goodnight. She mumbled a suitable response, closed her eyes to tiny slits. She wanted the regent to relax enough so that her sleep was uninterrupted. She would pretend to slumber to put Ephiny more at ease, then she would simply lay there and wait to see if anyone was foolish enough to make a move on their campsite.

As she waited for Ephiny's breathing to shallow with the onset of sleep, Devillare's gaze shifted to the fire, her mind briefly registering the crackling and popping of the logs as they burned down. Dimly, she recognized that the thickness of the pelts combined with the drink settling in her stomach worked to warm her body to a comfortable temperature. But, it escaped her notice completely when her lids grew heavier. And by the time Pelagia took up her post no more than twenty-five paces from the royal campsite, Devillare was already firmly entranced by one of Morpheus' dreams.



Gabrielle moved forward, inching herself along through the narrow, confined crawlspace. The structure's sudden collapse had caught her unawares, the quickness of the falling stone effectively cutting her off from the exit. When the debris settled and the air cleared enough for her to see through the dust-laden haze, she discovered that she was completely and utterly alone. And, despite her frequent and urgent calls for help, no one answered.

There wasn't enough room left to stand, let alone walk. She was forced on her hands and knees through piles of treacherously unstable rubble. She winced as a jagged shard of stone sliced through the material of her skirt and into her upper thigh. Still, she kept moving forward, towards the faint rays of dim sunlight that meant salvation.

Her grime-covered hand reached out, fingers covered in a mixture of dust and blood clutching about a frayed rope that disappeared beneath the pile of rubble she was precariously perched upon. The debris shifted, rock and dust falling and scattering at random, sending her tumbling through the wreckage until her feet struck solid ground.

"Ga - Gabrielle?"

The bard's heart stopped, then began beating triple-time at the sound of her name being called.

"Where are you?" She waited a half-heartbeat before calling out again. "Are you okay?"

"Help me . . . "

The voice was weak. She spun around, eyes darting about the dim wreckage, trying to decipher where the voice could be coming from.

"If you can hear me, say my name again." She stood stock-still, ears perked as she painstakingly listened for the slightest sound.

"Ga - "

One tiny pebble cascaded down a massive pile of rubble in slow-motion. First one, then another. Fear shot through Gabrielle like one of Zeus' lightning bolts as she took in the monstrous size of the pile of debris.

She sprinted to the mound, falling upon her hands and knees. Frantically, desperately, she clawed at the mortar and stone and bits of wooden timbers that blocked her way. She felt the ache in her arms, the throbbing in her hands as bloodied and battered fingers refused to give up. With a mighty grunt, she pulled a large section of wall off the pile, using her whole body to shove it away.

Gabrielle hesitated as a warrior's gauntlet and sword arm was revealed. With renewed vigor, Gabrielle dove into her task again, unrelenting until she revealed more of the gauntlet, then a bracer. Broken and bloodied fingers reached out for hers. Gabrielle took them within in her hand, mindful not to add pressure to the already crushed appendages.

Through tear-filled eyes, Gabrielle focused on the battered form laying before her. Blood liberally poured from a nose and mouth, running down a proud chin and over a grime-encrusted neck. Pale eyes weakly focused on her. A tiny, tumultuous smile struggled to appear on a ruined face.

"If you love me . . . "

"I do . . . " The tears were flowing freely now, running down Gabrielle's cheeks and falling upon the warrior's face. "I love you, Xena."

With the little remaining strength she had, the warrior pushed her sword grip into Gabrielle's hand.

". . . Kill me . . . "

Gabrielle bolted upright in her bedroll, her soundless scream dying on her lips. Sweat pouring off her body, her breathing erratic, she checked her surroundings. It was still the middle of the night, Artemis' moon was high overhead. Argo stood a short distance away on the outskirts of the campsite. In the distance, Gabrielle could just make out the looming shadow of the ridge they'd worked their way around earlier. The night sounds were broken by the sound of Xena softly snoring, having fallen asleep with her back braced against a tree while sharpening her sword.

Climbing to her feet, dragging her blanket with her, Gabrielle crossed the campsite to her champion. Reaching out, nimble fingers moved slowly, working to extricate the sword from the warrior's grasp. The grip about the hilt instinctively tightened.

"Xena, sweetie, it's me." A practiced hand soothingly worked its way through raven tresses in a petting motion. "Everything's okay."

Xena tensed, but didn't awaken. Gabrielle had no doubt that if it had been anyone other than her to approach the famed warrior princess in such a manner, Xena would now be standing over their corpse. But, in the seasons since becoming friends and then lovers, Xena's body, even in sleep, had grown to trust her. Although the warrior's reflexes might cause her to stir, Gabrielle firmly believed that Xena's heart wouldn't allow the rest of her to lay a single threatening finger upon her soulmate.

As Gabrielle continued to coo in her ear, the fingers relaxed enough so that the bard was able to lift the weapon away. Placing it on the ground beside the warrior, Gabrielle settled on the opposite side. Adjusting the blanket, she pulled it up over the both of them. She wrapped herself about Xena, knowing that even if she couldn't find sleep again that night, at least she would have the reassurance that her warrior was safe beside her.

The dark shroud of night was just giving way to the ash grey of a predawn sky when honey colored eyes blinked open. Laying flat on her back, Eponin peered up at Artemis' fading moon, wondering why she had gone to sleep outdoors last night. Then, her returning senses registered the soft snores in her ear, the warmth of a body curled about hers and she suddenly had several more interesting questions to ponder.

Slowly, so as not to further aggravate the crick that had apparently decided to settle itself into her neck while she slept, Eponin turned her head to the side. Her bed partner was hunched down and curled into Eponin's stocky frame. Two legs were intertwined with hers, both feet wrapped about Ep's calf. The fingers of one hand were wedged just beneath the waistband of her leathers. Her head rested on Ep's shoulder, the fur pelt she was snuggled beneath pulled up to her nose. A thick veil of chestnut hair hid the rest of her face from view. Extricating her right hand from where it was lodged beneath a hip, Eponin used her fingertips to drag down the edge of the pelt.

Eyes widened in surprise as Ep recognized the straight nose, the high cheekbones, the full lips. She was still staring in open-mouthed shock as eyes the shade of sandalwood sleepily blinked open. A yawn followed by a lazy smile greeted the morning.

"Solari?" Warm breath colliding with cooler temperatures sent up a visible puff of air at the exhalation.

"Morning, Ep." Seeing the obvious look of confusion, realizing the opportunity presented, Solari raised up on both elbows and planted a scorching kiss full on Eponin's lips. Dragging her teeth across the warrior's swollen bottom lip as she retreated, she husked out, "Mm, you were wonderful last night."

"I - I was wonder - ?" Eponin's thoughts were as rampant as a herd of galloping horses and her thick tongue was desperately trying to catch up. "I mean - you - I - we - " In flustered desperation, Eponin bowed her head. She was chewing her bottom lip in contemplation when she heard the low chuckle tickling the back of Solari's throat. Eyes suspiciously narrowed as one hand reached out, tugging the fur pelt lower, revealing a completely clothed chief scout beneath the covers. "We didn't." Realizing she'd been had, her friend's name rumbled out as a low warning. "Solari."

"Oh, Ep! The look on your face." Solari was openly laughing now, her cheeks taking on a deeper hue and tears beginning to form in her eyes. "You actually thought we . . . " Solari waggled a finger back and forth between herself and the warrior as her entire frame rocked with laughter. "Just how hard did you get hit in the head?" Wiping the moisture from her eyes, she teased, "As if there's enough drink in the village to make me intoxicated enough to bed you."

Solari thought she saw something flash in Eponin's eyes as the joking barb left her lips. Something almost - Then, the weapons master seemed to shake it off and rejoined her with, "Yeah, Soli? Well, I wouldn't come near your bedroll with a ten-foot spear."

"Mmm-hmm." Solari made an exaggerated point of adjusting the pelt she was curled beneath and snuggling impossibly closer into Eponin's side. "Seems there's not enough room in here for you and me and that spear."

Ep was momentarily flustered by Solari's actions and the feel of the scout's body pressed fully against the length of her own. Recovering she propped herself up on one elbow, made a showing of letting her gaze travel about their surroundings. "Yep, looks like the champion's campsite to me," she drawled, unable to keep the smirk off her lips as she refocused on the Amazon laying beneath her. "And, I don't recall inviting you beneath my pelt."

"Yet, here I am, all toasty warm." Another yawn was followed by a languorous stretch that had joints audibly popping. Usually by this point in her teasing, Eponin would take a more physical means of retaliation. She had to admit, although unexpected, she was pleasantly surprised by the verbal sparring they were engaged in. "A little fuzzy around the edges this morning, huh?"

Eponin fell back on her pelt, laying flat on her back beside Solari. Closing her eyes against the steadily lightening sky, she admitted, "When I woke up, I'd almost forgot about why I got my tailfeathers kicked yesterday." She attempted a stretch, felt a pulling sensation along her ribcage. "Until the pain reminded me."

Solari eyed Eponin sympathetically. The bruises had settled in now, darkening overnight, making the weapons master's entire face look like one massive lump of pain. "I think if I felt half as bad as you look, I wouldn't be able to get out of my bedroll this morning."

Eponin's head lolled to the side. "I'm not up, yet."

"Just be thankful you're the champion." One hand blindly groped about beneath the furs until fingers found her elusive wineskin. Bringing it to her lips, taking a long draw, she swished the liquid around her mouth before swallowing it with an "Ah." Holding the skin out, she asked, "Want some?"

"Nah." Eponin waved off the offer, "My head already feels like someone's used it as a drum all night."

"You and me both, my friend. You and me both."

"At least you got to drink," Eponin snorted as she held her aching head in both hands. "All I got was the hangover . . . and it feels like something crawled up inside my mouth and died."

Solari experimentally sniffed the air. "Smells like it, too." Her teasing smile took the offensive sting out of her words. "Must be that broth Hilaeira was pouring down your throat. A few mint leaves will take care of that."

Solari rolled away from Eponin, dragging half the furs with her. Crawling on hands and knees, she searched the campsite for her boots. She found one, pulled it to her, stuck her hand deep inside. Tossing it aside, eyes darted about for the other boot. Spying it laying dangerously close to the fire ring, she crawled on all fours to reach it. Retrieving it, she clutched it in one hand as she awkwardly crawled back across the campsite to where Eponin was intently watching her, a slightly amused expression on her face.

She watched as the chief scout remained crouched on all fours, fingers digging into the solitary boot she had brought back with her. Solari was still clearly inebriated, as evidenced by the fact that she started listing to one side, nearly falling over on top of Eponin before catching herself. Righting herself, she distributed her weight between knees and elbows. Extracting a small, leather pouch from inside the boot, Solari held it up in triumph as uncoordinated fingers worked to open the drawstrings.

"You carry mint leaves in your boots?" Eponin asked suspiciously, even as she opened her mouth to receive one of the leaves Solari was dangling from her fingertips.

"Sure," Solari shrugged, "Doesn't everyone?"

Before Eponin could comment that she most certainly didn't, she felt a looming presence. Solari instinctively felt it, too, for both hers and Eponin's heads tilted back at the same instant, their eyes traveling over a pair of familiar boots and up tanned legs.

"If you're both ready," The Regent stood with both hands on her hips, glaring down at the campsite's inhabitants. She tapped her foot, impatiently waiting until she was certain both sets of bleary eyes were completely focused on her, "we have a judgment to carry out."

Two wagons teamed with two horses each were assembled in the main square. The lead wagon had one driver, her boot resting on the buckboard, her hands holding the reins in a loose grip as she awaited the signal to move out. The wagon was covered with a heavy tarp that was kept securely in place with thick ropes tied through the wooden slats in the side and back of the wagon. Leather bindings had been carefully sewn into the material at the front and back, providing makeshift drawstrings.

Inside this wagon were the supplies being transported to the detention camp situated in the Amazon highlands. Although the outpost was designed to be for the most part self-sufficient, the Amazons knew from experience that even they couldn't always rely on finding enough game to last them through the harsher winters in the highlands. So, as a precaution, they periodically sent enough extra rations from the main village to provide for at least two moons. In exchange, the outpost sent back a shipment of ore from the mines and any extra leather crafts the prisoners had managed to construct.

The second wagon was the prisoners wagon. There were two Amazon guards driving the team of horses on this rig. One to hold the reins, the other to keep a close watch on the prisoners. Like their sister in the lead wagon, these Amazons were armed with their usual assortment of weapons, including swords and boot daggers. Beneath their feet, however, were several thick pelts they could use for added warmth as they traveled higher into the mountain passes. And, under those pelts, hidden beneath a loose slat in the floorboard, was an additional cache of weapons.

Not that there was ever a need to use them. The highland outpost was located securely within Amazon territory. And, with their borders clearly marked - and their fierce reputation intact - no one had trespassed upon their Northern wilderness. Ever.

Like the chains in the bed of the wagon, the added weapons were strictly a precaution. Once sentenced and loaded onto the prisoners' wagon, there was no escape. Although the Amazons abhorred the use of chains on a sister, they understood the necessity of them. And, by necessity, their blacksmith was the best there was at forging them. She had crafted one of the thickest, heaviest chains, second only to the chain that had been commissioned by Xena herself. That chain in turn had been divided into six equal sections. Then, a shackle as thick as any gauntlet was added to the end of each section of chain. Finally, the other end was secured to a thick eyelet that was hammered into the oak slats making up the side walls of the wagon. Six chains in all, three to each side of the wagon.

As with the lead wagon, this one also had a tarp covering held securely in place by thick roping tied through the wooden slats. At the moment, both the flaps at the front and back were hanging open. Once the prisoners were loaded in and secured, the drawstring at the rear would be pulled tightly closed, leaving the prisoners only each other to look at. There would be no final glimpses of their home and loved ones. Their exile would begin as soon as the wagon began moving out. Of course, the guards had the option of whether or not to pull closed the drawstring at the head of the wagon. Sometimes they did, preferring to be able to shut out the scathing glares of their sisters. Although, once in a while, if one of the guards felt more comfortable keeping a closer eye on the prisoners, she might leave the drawstring flap open the entire trip.

Solari and Eponin approached just as Gryta was taking her place beside the driver of the second team. The guard placed one boot on the wheel of the wagon, braced both hands on the wooden exterior and with a grunt, heaved herself up. As she settled into the seat, the fingers of one hand came up to rub at her temple. Spotting the scout's approach, a lazy, yet somewhat lecherous smile crept across her lips.

Oooh. Must have been one Tartarus of a night. Solari noted the dark bags beneath the guard's eyes, the love bites marking her neck, recognized the signs of the massive hangover Gryta was no doubt sporting. Though, even she had to admit the guard looked well-satisfied. Tired, but satisfied. Spying the looks Gryta was sending her way and not wanting a repeat performance of last evening's advances, Solari purposefully detoured from her intended path.

Eponin shot the scout an exasperated look as Solari abruptly changed course, taking them on a circuitous route past the wagons. Resisting the urge to growl at the scout's apparent lack of direction, Ep adjusted her crutches and redoubled her efforts to keep up with Solari's increased stride. Matching their paces side by side, Eponin and Solari approached the gathered assembly.

In the center of the village, the entire council of elders stood assembled in a phalanx formation, dressed in formal leathers and feathered masks. Each stood at attention, armed with their weapon of choice. In some cases, like those of the retired hunters, these doubled as the tools of their trade. In other instances, such as Lyonene's double-edged labrys that wreaked such havoc at the Battle of Rycirrus, the weapons were almost as infamous as their owners.

Tynette and Nicphellia stood at attention at the farthest point of the formation, their long bows tautly strung, both of their leather finger guards resting on the curved wood at the top of the bow. As the two hunters had been waiting, they'd indulged in a bit of showing off, performing a synchronized routine from their youth in which they each used the instep of their boots to flip their bows up from the ground at the same time they reached for an arrow from the quivers they wore slung over their shoulders. As the bows swung up into position, both nocked their arrows and immediately pulled the drawstrings. The younger Amazons watched in amazement as both arrows hit their target at the same time, landing dead center in a knothole in the massive tree that stood in the center of the main square.

Before them in the formation, standing side by side, were the elder bondmates, Evanthe and Myrina. Like the hunters, the scouts also claimed the bow and arrow as their weapons of choice. They each sported short bows, however, preferring the smaller length for their duties. A long bow and quiver was too cumbersome when climbing and traveling through the trees. So, in deference to their profession and their slighter builds, both scouts claimed the lighter, easier to handle short bows.

Ahead of them at the narrowest part of the 'v' formation, Lyonene and Calandra stood so close their shoulders were nearly touching. Or, they would have been if Calandra hadn't been so stooped over with age. The ancient healer was so decrepit that she could barely walk on her own, let alone wield a weapon. So, it was out of necessity that her weapon of choice this day was the staff. Although, it was debatable as to whether she was holding up the staff, or if it was in position to keep the elder upright.

Standing across from her, head held high and looking as proud as she did when she first accepted her feathered mask, was Lyonene. In her youth, the hunter had brought down more game than any hunter with twice her experience. As a woman in her prime, she had wielded her weapon in a single-handed defense of their borders against insurmountable odds until reinforcements could arrive. The legends said her double-edged labrys ran so thick with the blood of her enemies that it congealed on the blades and down the handle, soaking her flesh up to her elbow. And, as an elder in her crone years, few doubted that if called upon to do so in defense of her Nation and Queen, Lyonene could wield her weapon with that ferocious intensity again.

At the head of the formation, blue sash signifying her position as a member of the royal guard, was Captain Devillare. The sword pommel protruding from over her left shoulder held the sapphire encrusted with the raised 'R' marked the hilt of the sword as belonging to an honored member of the guard under Queen Reyvanne's command. The leather shoulder guards with the dark brown feathers and the gauntlets edged with the deer-symbol and the carved 'M' gave testament that she served dutifully as Queen Melosa's captain. Although officially retired, alert grey eyes studied the proceedings with a critical eye for detail that was unparalleled by even her successor.

As was customary, Captain Pelagia awaited the arrival of the prisoners in the main square. The counselors, Alcestis and Symaethis flanked her on each side. Devillare could tell by the way the captain was fidgeting that she wanted nothing more than to personally go check on the status of the guard detail and escort the prisoners herself. Protocol, however, dictated she remain with both counselors in a show of unity for the justice system. Now that the matter had been resolved, it was important for all Amazons to see the Counsel for the Nation and Counsel for the Accused in joint harmony with the representative of the enforcer of Amazonian law.

Apart from them all, the elders, the lawmakers, the assembled Amazons, stood the Nation's Regent at the top of a three-step dais. This dais was small in nature, having room for only a throne and little more; unlike the more impressive ones that had been erected in recent seasons to serve both the Queen's and Regent's joint rule. This smaller dais located in the very heart of the Amazon nation was older than the rest, having been erected during the initial stages of Queen Derimacheia's reign. In those days, a modest wooden throne had sat atop the three-step marbled structure, the Queen preferring to rule over her assembled Amazons from the center of the village. Now, that throne was long since gone, the second step sported a crack the width of a sword blade and the once white marble had dulled to a slate grey.

Still, it served its intended purpose. To elevate the ruling sovereign to a position befitting her status amongst the tribe. Chosen by Artemis, Goddess of the Hunt and Amazons, their ruler represented their ideals. The Queen was what Artemis had envisioned when she created the Amazons. Pure of blood, quick of wit, courageous of heart. Her race of warrior-women were strong of mind and body, beautifully dangerous, willfully independent, defiantly steadfast in their loyalty to their goddess and her ways.

Ephiny, with her posture unyielding, both hands clasped behind her back, proud chin held high, represented that image perfectly. Apollo's chariot was ascending into the sky behind her, casting a bronze glow over blonde curls and sun-kissed shoulders. Hazel eyes swept over the assembled Amazons, her gaze giving away nothing of her inner thoughts. A carefully neutral mask kept her emotions private from all.

Even the beat from the small drum signaling the approach of the prisoners didn't elicit a response from the queen in residence. Nor did the arrival of the chief scout and the weapons master heartbeats later, both hurrying to take up their positions at the regent's side. Solari easily slid into her place at Ephiny's left side, two steps below the regent on the dais, smoothly coming to attention. Eponin's approach was slightly less polished, her usual sure movements hampered by the unfamiliar crutches. She performed a pivot, coming about on the regent's right, facing front just as the procession came into the square.

As second-in-command of the guard, Lexine had the dubious honor of leading the detail. Two guards flanked her, walking three paces behind. Bound and chained behind them were the three prisoners. Four more guards marched in position at the sides and rear of the procession, hands on their sword grips as they escorted their former sisters before the ruling bodies of the Nation.

After the incident in the jail in which Cordele had nearly fought her way to freedom, Lexine had been more than a little nervous to learn she would be escorting the prisoners to the wagons. Of course, it was customary for the Captain to remain by the Regent's side. But, she was hoping, given the circumstances, that perhaps she would be left with the regent and the more experienced captain would take charge of the prisoners.

Not that Lexine didn't have experience. It's just that the captain . . . and everyone else, it seemed . . . had more. Lexi knew she was considered young for her position. So did the others in her squad, as evidenced by the number of times they called her by her nickname. But, it was never in a disrespectful manner. It was just that many of her subordinates were a good five to ten summers older than her and many still remembered her as that little tag-a-long with hair the color and texture of straw that used to mimic their guard patrols for candlemarks on end.

Now, here she was, leading many of those same women in the guard. For real - not some little child's pretend game. She was lucky. She knew that. She wasn't as big as or as tough as some of the other members of the guard. As a matter of fact, her mothers had wanted to push her into being a scout or a messenger because of her smaller frame. It was only sheer dumb luck that Captain Pelagia had noticed her shadowing her guards actions and had her summoned to her office.

When Lexine had entered the office, the captain was sitting behind her desk, hurriedly writing on a parchment. Standing there, hands nervously clasped in front of her, waiting with all the patience that a child that age could muster, Lexine waited for the captain to address her. She had studied the guard; she knew protocol dictated that all members of the guard stand at attention until acknowledged by their superior. And so, she waited. And waited. And waited. Until she thought she'd die from waiting.

Then, those grey eyes slowly raised and the captain finally looked at her. A steely impenetrable gaze that made Lexi suddenly wish she was still just waiting. Resting both elbows on her desk, steepling her fingers together, Pelagia stared at her.

"So," the deep voice resonated throughout the room, nearly making Lexine jump, "This is the little girl that's been following my troupe around, mimicking all their routines and maneuvers, even standing guard alongside them outside the Queen's hut."

Captain of the guard or not, Lexine wasn't about to stand for anyone making fun of her. Sticking her chin out in that defiant manner all Amazons seemed to learn from an early age and puffing her chest out as far as it would go, she protested, "I'm no little girl. I'm a warrior fully grown."

There was an audible snort at her audacity. A smirk teased at the corners of the captain's lips. In a tone clearly dripping with amusement, she asked, "What do you think?"

"I don't know about the warrior part," a firm voice answered. "But, with the right training, I can put some muscle on that skinny frame of hers."

Lexine nearly peed her leathers when the Amazon she hadn't even realized was in the room stepped forth from the shadows. As it was, she failed to stifle the gasp of surprise that fell from her lips when she recognized the weapons master was critically appraising her. It took all her effort, but somehow, Lexine managed to hold her position, remaining at attention as the stocky Amazon approached her. She held her breath as Eponin slowly circled about her, looking her over from head to toe.

"I don't know, Captain Pelagia." That gruff voice resounded in Lexine's ear as Eponin stopped directly behind her, addressing the still-seated captain over the nervous youth's shoulder. "You sure you want a scrawny bit like this in your guard?"

"Well . . . " Pelagia leaned back in her chair, stroking her jaw, "Mytilda's in her last two moons of pregnancy. And, what with this being her second child and the complications during the last birthing, Bonadea has put in a request for some time off." Then, consulting the scroll she'd been working on, she added, "Plus, there's that patrol that's been sent out on that diplomatic mission to Britannia with Princess Terreis. And, with Queen Melosa herself sending those two featherheads to the infirmary after catching them spying on her and her guest from Corinth" Pelagia gave an off-handed shrug "Figured it wouldn't hurt to start recruiting some fresh meat."

"If you're sure that's what you want." Eponin folded her arms across her chest, purposefully flexed, causing her massive biceps to bulge. Lexine felt her eyes nearly bulging out of their sockets right alongside them as the weapons master added in that brusque voice of hers, "Guess if you change your mind later, we can always ship her off to the Highland Outpost. I hear Warden Valene likes them . . . " a shiver raced down Lexine's spine as Eponin's eyes boldly traveled over her trembling body before adding ". . . tiny."

It wasn't until Eponin had kicked her tailfeathers around the training fields for the better part of six moons and she'd earned her first position into the guard that the weapons master and the captain had finally confided in her that they never had any intention of sending her to the outpost. They had only been teasing that day. But, in her youthful defiance, they found a way to motivate her to apply herself. Even after they confessed, Lexine still practiced hard, determined more than ever to prove that she had what it took to guard the Queen. And, under Eponin's training on the field and Pelagia's guidance in the tactical and protocol arenas, Lexine rapidly rose through the ranks until she was second only to the captain that had mentored her.

Lexine signaled her troop to halt, their boots giving a resounding thud on the frost-packed ground as they immediately came to attention before the dais. As one, her squad gave the rapid-fire salute honoring their sovereign. As the Regent returned the salute and Lexine stepped aside, her gaze fell upon the women standing on the steps of the dais with their ruler.

Both women wore stoic masks, their expressions giving away nothing of their true character. Being a part of the guard, second-in-command to Captain Pelagia, Lexine had finally started to crack that inner sanctum that made up the regent's closest advisors. The captain of the guard, the chief scout and the weapons master. To many in the Nation, these three women made up the driving force behind the Regent's power. Whatever she commanded, they were responsible for seeing it done. Above all others, she trusted Pelagia, Solari and Eponin the most.

As well she should. During her time serving in the guard, Lexine had come to recognize the fierce loyalty all three possessed for their regent. It was well known that Captain Pelagia was happily bonded and devoted to her family. When it came to protecting the regent, however, it was understood that duty came before family. Especially after the abduction; the captain had taken to reassigning the duty roster, juggling the shifts so she could pull more candlemarks guarding the regent's shadow.

The chief scout had an easy-going, relaxed disposition. She was always friendly, with a quick wit and an even quicker smile. She was out-going and easily showed affection. And, this was readily visible in her camaraderie with the regent. While others might be reluctant to interact with her because of her status, the brunette with the mahogany eyes wasn't so intimidated. Lexine couldn't begin to count the number of times she'd seen Solari bring a moody regent out of her shell with a well-placed touch or a wide smile or even a well-timed skin of wine.

Pelagia was her protector. Solari was her unconditional friend. And, Eponin? She was definitely protective of her regent. Lexine had noted that just based on the sheer number of times Eponin had gone out of her way to schedule extra practice sessions with the regent on the field no matter what time of day or night. And, she was most assuredly a friend. Hence the predawn visits to her bedside every morning while Ephiny was recovering from her shoulder wound and abduction. But, there was more to it than that. She could see it in the way the warrior's eyes followed her regent even after their sparring sessions had ended. She didn't carry the same playful bantering that Solari did; but there was a certain - almost tenderness - in her gruff voice when she spoke with Ephiny.

She could easily label the other two, define their personalities and their involvement with the regent. But, not the weapons master. There was something else there. Something she was missing. They weren't intimate. Being a member of the guard and having taken her own share of shift rotation, she had spent many a lonely night standing guard outside the regent's hut. If there was one thing Lexine knew for a fact, it was that the regent did not have a lover.

Lexine heard the slight jangling caused by the prisoners' leg irons as they shuffled their feet upon the frost-covered ground. They were so close, she could fairly feel their breath on her back. Subtly, fingers tightened upon the grip of the sword belted at her waist.

The regent stood upon the dais, her gaze unwavering as she looked out over the crowd of assembled Amazons. Her voice was strong and clear, her tone even as she read the charges and the sentences to be carried out.

Cordele bristled as Kynthia's name and sentence was read aloud. The younger woman stood beside her, her wrists and ankles bound by chains identical to the ones her and Keleos also wore. Out of Cordele's peripheral vision, she could see Kynthia's resolve begin to crumble, her body begin to shake as the tears rolled down her cheeks.

When the regent read Keleos' name and punishment aloud, Cordele was satisfied that there was no similar breakdown. Keleos managed to maintain some dignity, although there was no mistaking the worried looks that she kept sending towards her openly weeping bedmate.

Finally hearing her name, Cordele visibly straightened, standing defiantly tall, her chin held high. As with her two friends, the magnitude of what the sentence meant finally settled in. They were to be taken away in disgrace, their shame to be recorded upon the archived scrolls in the library. No longer would songs be sung about their bravery and deeds about the fire rings. Given time, Kynthia and Keleos would eventually regain their freedom. But, they could never return to the village that had been their home since birth. As for herself; having lost the challenge, Cordele knew she was facing a long, slow death confined in a prison encampment.

As Ephiny's smooth voice confirmed her punishment, she felt her jaw clamping down, her teeth grinding. Shrugging her massive shoulders, she flicked her wind-tousled mane of blonde hair out of her blue eyes. Leveling her gaze, she fixed her sights dead on the regent.

She won't even look at me. Cordele's lip curled in a sneer of disgust. She thinks she's above us, on her dais; like we're beneath her notice. The slight perturbed Cordele to no end. Suddenly, she was determined to not be quickly dealt with and then forgotten like she was nothing more than a minor inconvenience or another duty to be performed before breakfast. She mattered; her presence in the Nation mattered; she wouldn't be so easily dismissed.

Flexing her powerful forearms, Cordele tightened her hands into fists about the length of chain dangling between her wrist restraints. The metal felt cool and solid beneath her fingers as she wrapped the chain about her knuckles. Her movements caused the chains to rattle, but she worked to cover the noise by shuffling her feet, causing her ankle chains to rustle as well.

She caught the nervous tapping of fingers upon the grip of Lexine's sword. The guard still hadn't turned to look at her, but her instincts were no doubt urging her that something wasn't right. Before the second-in-command or any of the other guards could react, Cordele lunged forward.

She had briefly considered trying to wrench the sword free from Lexine's hand. When she was upon her, though, and noticed the grip already tightening, she realized it would take too much time to wrest the weapon away. Instead, she put her entire body behind the move, shoving the guard with such force that she was knocked to the ground.

Shouts were ringing in her ears as she charged the dais. Her movements were somewhat hampered by the chains, but they weren't restrictive enough to slow her much. Her booted foot was already upon the bottom step of the dais before the first of the guards had made a counter-move.

It was as if every motion slowed. She caught the shocked expressions, felt empowered by the briefest flicker of fear she was certain she caught in the regent's eyes. Then, the steely glint of determination as Solari stepped directly into her path. She still had enough momentum to plow through the chief scout, a big elbow to the face knocking out any resistance. Stepping over Solari's sprawled out form, she climbed another step before she noticed the weapons master moving to intercept her.

The guards were organizing themselves now, moving towards the steps. Behind her, she could hear Solari cursing as she struggled to get up. She had no doubt that as soon as the chief scout regained her footing, she'd be upon her back. Already, Captain Pelagia and Devillare were moving into flanking positions, charging up opposite sides of the dais steps. There was a brief glimpse of curly blonde locks before Devillare's larger body blocked her view as she hurriedly rushed the regent down the back side of the dais. With a renewed surge of rage, she made a desperate lunge to reach the retreating regent.

Eponin saw the murderous intent in Cordele's eyes, determinedly threw herself into the hunter's path anyway. Cordele was coming too quickly to side-step the weapons master. And, even as she crashed into Eponin, she knew she wouldn't be able to push her way through the Amazon's stockier frame the way she had with Solari. Her heart pounded hard against her chest as she realized she wouldn't reach the regent.

Hampered by the crutches, Eponin was unable to get her defense up before she felt herself falling to the ground, taking Cordele with her. The hunter landed on top, elbows and knees digging into already-bruised flesh. The cold press of metal was heavy upon her throat as Cordele tried to press her advantage. Eponin had no doubt, given half a chance, the prisoner would wrap her chain all the way about her neck.

Cordele could feel Eponin's hands upon her wrists, straining to prevent her from tightening her hold. She could also feel the blows landing upon her back and upper body as Solari and Pelagia rushed to their sister's defense. A forearm was about her neck, trying to cut off her air supply. And, she knew it would only be a matter of heartbeats before a knife or sword was pressed to her own neck.

Putting as much of her weight behind her hands as possible, Cordele leaned in. Eponin's fingers were now wedged between the flesh of her neck and the chain in an effort to keep the pressure at bay. It was satisfying to see the worried look reflected in her prey's eyes, but she knew realistically that she didn't have sufficient enough time to finish off her mortal enemy. Solari's gauntleted forearm was steadily tightening against her windpipe; black spots dancing against her eyes at the pressure.

Holding back the darkness that threatened to rob her of consciousness, Cordele concentrated all her effort on pressing her lips to Eponin's ear and husking out through tightly clenched teeth, "If you think this is over, you're wrong." Drawing strength from the strangled gasp she heard escape Eponin's lips, she promised, "Remember what I said. Everything you hold of value, I will take from you."

Before she could offer up more threats, she felt the cold metal of a blade working its way between Solari's forearm and her neck. Solari slowly backed away, allowing the blade to replace her arm's position. Pressed against Cordele's throat, the tip caught her beneath the chin, forcing her head back. Eyes traveled the length of the blade, over the gauntlet and arm bracer before settling on Pelagia's steely visage.

"One wrong move and you're dead."

Cordele abruptly let loose Eponin's throat. Raising both hands in the air in the Amazon sign of peace, she slowly rose off the prone figure of the downed weapons master. Three additional guards moved in, taking custody of her, fairly dragging her down the dais steps and into the back of the wagon. Kynthia and Keleos had already been hurriedly ushered into the wagon and restrained. As she felt the shackles being secured into place, heard the key turning and clicking the lock closed, she was offered one last look at the chaos she'd created.

Eponin was crouched upon the top step of the dais, Solari on her knees beside her. Hilaeira and Iphinome had moved in to attend to the chief scout's bloodied nose while Megara went to the weapons master's side. Lexine was on her feet, albeit a little shaky as she directed the guard and drivers into position. Pelagia was shouting orders, commanding the assembled crowd of Amazons to disperse enough to allow the wagons to move out. All the elders save Devillare were in the process of being whisked away to the safety of the council hut. The ex-captain of the guard was hovering over the regent in an obvious attempt to usher her towards the same hut. As the regent defiantly maintained her position, both hands on her hips, her attention was drawn to the wagon. Across a chaotic venue, time stood still as intense blue eyes met with hazel flecked with the color of gold and the shade of apprehension.

A shadow fell across the back of the wagon, ending the moment between the hunter and the regent. One of the guards stepped up, pulling her knife from the sheath at her waist. In one slice, she cut through the ropes holding the tarp open. Pulling the severed leather cords tightly, she drew the drawstring closed. As the guard worked to obstruct the view from the back of the wagon, the last image she had of the prisoners was that of Cordele's lips curving into a callous grin.

Part 9

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